By thinking that they could pull off a story about a lonely misfit who falls in love with a sex doll that he believes is a flesh-and-blood virtuous missionary — and tell it gently and chastely — the makers of “Lars and the Real Girl” must surely sound as delusional as their emotionally damaged protagonist. But they’ve delivered a charmer.
Erasing doubt relating to their big-screen credentials or lack thereof, director Craig Gillespie (“Mr. Woodcock”) and debut screenwriter Nancy Oliver (TV’s “Six Feet Under”) serve up fresh material and genuine sweetness, with results both uncommon and winning. The setting is a midwestern hamlet characterized by frozen landscapes and dominant decency genes.
The protagonist, Lars (Ryan Gosling), is a painfully withdrawn office drone who lives, by choice, in the family garage. Afraid of human contact, he discovers companionship with a life-sized sex mannequin he’s purchased from a porn Web site frequented by a coworker.
Where others see a “slutty hunk of silicone,” Lars sees purity and goodness. He calls the doll Bianca, describes her as a missionary, and treats her like a platonic girlfriend.
Things get still odder when town doctor Dagmar (Patricia Clarkson), citing her treatment strategy, advises Lars’ concerned brother, Gus (Paul Schneider), and sister-in-law, Karin (Emily Mortimer), to play along with Lars’ delusion. Soon, all the townsfolk follow suit, and Bianca becomes a valued member of society. She volunteers at the hospital, serves on the school board, and touches hearts. She inspires Lars to emerge from his cocoon.
As fables go, the film doesn’t achieve the profundity that distinguishes the best of the lot. It sometimes plays simplistically rather than simply. The villagers can be too unquestioning and pristine-hearted for comfort, not to mention credibility.
But give in to its overall whimsy, and the movie becomes an amusingly, endearingly off-kilter tale of loneliness, friendship, and community. Oliver’s story is consistently vital. Gillespie creates an immersing mood, blending warmth and deadpan. There’s funny stuff associated with the doll element, like Dagmar examining her silicone patient and pronouncing her blood pressure “low.”
The indie-world cast, meanwhile, which also includes Kelli Garner as a coworker with a crush on Lars, shines throughout. Gosling conveys the requisite sweetness while also displaying the depth necessary to give the potentially cloying Lars crucial dimension.
He may not quite get under your skin, all said. But for 106 minutes of fantasyland, this movie has you believing.
Lars and the Real Girl ***
Starring Ryan Gosling, Emily Mortimer, Paul Schneider, Patricia Clarkson
Written by Nancy Oliver
Directed by Craig Gillespie
Running time: 1 hour, 46 minutes